The chips Langer and his team are working on are around two centimetres squared and contain up to 1,000 tiny “wells” you can put different drugs in, each with a little cover. As the covers are removed, the drug is released. You could put 1,000 doses of the same drug in to be released over time, or different ones. “You can also literally have a pharmacy on a chip if the drugs are potent enough,” he told me in a phone interview.
Langer was just awarded the 2015 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for his “revolutionary advances and leadership in engineering at the interface with chemistry and medicine,” but his work didn’t always attract such appreciation.
Robert Langer. Image: Queen Elizabeth Prize
He started out on the work he’d become lauded for when he was a postdoc working in a hospital. “The problem we were trying to work on was a very different problem: Could we find a substance that would stop blood vessels growing in the body?” he said.
He and medical scientist Judah Folkman succeeded in developing a polymer that could deliver the large molecules necessary to stop blood vessel growth over an extended period of time and published the work in Nature.
But many people just didn’t think it could be possible. “Early on, one of the most challenging parts was that people were very skeptical that you could do this kind of thing, and it was very hard to raise money, because people would turn down grants,” said Langer. “In fact they didn’t even want me to continue my faculty position.”
Langer pushed on to show how his creation worked—the polymer had lots of what he called “tortuous pathways,” which meant the molecules took a long time to get through, hence the slow release mechanism. As Langer explained in a 2006 paper, this extended release is crucial, as for some treatments a too much of a drug can be dangerous but too little can be ineffective; this kind of variation occurs when you take drugs in pill form, or as an injection.
His work with polymers became the basis for drug delivery systems that deliver hormones to treat cancer, peptides to treat type 2 diabetes, and drugs to treat schizophrenia, among others.
Now, Microchips, a company he cofounded, is making implantable chips that could potentially deliver drugs for osteoporosis, contraception, and diabetes.
Image: Ben Tang
Instead of having to give yourself an injection or take a pill every day, you’d have the microchip implanted under your skin and let it do its thing long-term (up to 16 years, according to the company website).
Even better, the chips respond to wireless signals so you could change the dose according to your condition without having to physically access the chip: a remote control for your implanted pharmacy.
Langer told me the idea came to him rather serendipitously. “It must have been 25 years after I started doing this work. I happened to be watching a television show on how they made microchips in the computer industry,” he said. “And I thought to myself, would this be a great way to do drug delivery?”
He admitted that, after 25 to 30 years work in the same area, he might have been equally inspired by any other TV show. But he worked with materials scientist Michael Cima on the idea, and they founded Microchips together.
The chips are currently in clinical trials, and the company is pursuing different applications for the platform. Research on a version for female contraception is supported by the Gates Foundation in line with its work to improve birth control in the developing world. As it’s operated remotely, a woman with the implant could change their mind and effectively turn the chip on or off according to their family planning desires. At the moment, implants have to be surgically removed.
It will be years before the microchip device is available to patients—if it gets that far—but Langer already has quite the legacy to leave behind: The Queen Elizabeth Prize credited his lab’s technologies with improving 2 billion lives already.